Playing with an undermanned lineup seems to be catching up with the Pittsburgh Penguins as they head into their first Metropolitan Division game, Saturday against the visiting New Jersey Devils.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, help is on the way. Team captain and top center Sidney Crosby will make his season debut after September wrist surgery, and veteran forward Jeff Carter will return after missing the team’s last three games due to COVID-19 protocol.
“We’re just a much better hockey team when they’re in our lineup,” coach Mike Sullivan said Saturday morning. “We’re excited to have them back. It gives us more depth. It makes our power play more dangerous. It makes matchups more difficult for our opponents. It has a ripple effect on our whole team.”
The Penguins started with no regulation losses in their first five games despite missing up to five key players because of injuries and COVID-19 protocol.
Then they ran into monster games from goaltenders — Andrei Vasilevskiy of Tampa Bay and Jacob Markstrom of Calgary — and have lost two straight by a combined 9-1.
That’s one goal on 74 shots, underscoring the need for some of the Penguins’ high-end players to get healthy, even though others have filled in admirably.
“The effort’s there,” Pittsburgh defenseman Mike Matheson said. “Everybody’s been bringing their lunch pail every day and working hard.”
One player who is already in the lineup and could help the Penguins is winger Jake Guentzel, a former 40-goal scorer who missed the opener because of COVID-19 protocol (he was asymptomatic) and scored in his first game back, but has no goals and three assists in the past five games.
“We have good players up and down the lineup,” said Guentzel, who has played with an assortment of teammates on the top line because of the team’s absences. “We might be playing with different guys, but you know how they play. We’ve just got to build chemistry right away.
“I’ve got to be better. I’ve just got to help as much as I can. I’ve got to start producing.”
The Devils are expecting a challenge no matter who is in the Pittsburgh lineup.
“I think they’re really good at playing their game (despite the injuries),” New Jersey coach Lindy Ruff said. “We know what Pitt can bring. … They’re a team that drives the puck north. They play with a lot of speed. They’re a tough team to play against. They’re on the puck a lot. We know that we’re going to have to equal that or be better in the hockey game.”
The other challenge for the Devils is playing away from the comforts of home.
New Jersey, which has played the fewest games in the league, opened the season with its first five games at home, winning three of them. The game in Pittsburgh will be its first on the road and the first in a stretch of four out of five away from home.
Unlike last season when crowds were restricted because of the pandemic, the Devils will be playing in front of a large crowd at PPG Paints Arena.
“It’s like getting back to normal,” New Jersey captain Nico Hischier said. “It’s a great atmosphere there. It’s always tough to play there, but I kind of like it. My first couple years we always had good games against Pittsburgh. I like playing against them. I’m looking forward to our first road game. It should be fun.”
It’s also a test.
“We have to prove ourselves on the road,” Ruff said. “A lot of times you can come together by getting big road wins. It’s hard to win on the road. Everyone has pride in playing well at home. You have to play good hockey.”
–Field Level Media